Etta James Biography
Jamesetta Hawkins was born in Los Angeles, California, to an unmarried 14-year-old African-American, Dorothy Hawkins. She claimed that her mother told her that her father was a white pool player, Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone. She received her first professional vocal training at the age of five from James Earle Hines, musical director of the Echoes of Eden choir, at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
James' family moved to San Francisco in 1950, where she soon teamed up with two other girls to form a doo-wop singing group. When the girls were 14, band leader Johnny Otis had them audition; they sang an answer to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie," called "Roll With Me Henry." Otis particularly liked the song and, without her mother's permission, James and the duo went to Los Angeles in 1954 to record it. The song was recorded under the Modern Records label. By this time, the trio had renamed the song "The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)." It was released in 1955. James named her vocal group "The Peaches." Richard Berry, a Los Angeles doo-wop luminary, is featured on some of the group's records.
James married Artis Mills. She has two sons, Donto and Sametto James, and several grandchildren.
There are at least two versions of how Johnny Otis discovered Etta James. Otis' version is that she came to his hotel room after one of his performances in San Francisco and persuaded him to audition her. Another frequently told story is that Otis spotted her performing in an L.A. nightclub with The Peaches and, having conceived of the answer song to Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie," arranged with the Bihari brothers for Modern Records to record "The Wallflower" with James. "The Wallflower" reached #2 on the rhythm and blues charts in February 1955, but was undercut in the wider market by a rushed-out cover version by Georgia Gibbs, on Mercury Records. The first time she was recorded in studio, they used the first take she recorded and it became #1 on the "Top 100" songs in the nation. Royalties from "The Wallflower" were divided among Ballard, James and Otis. Its huge success attracted the attention of the R&B world, resulting in James going on tour with Little Richard. On the tour, according to James, she witnessed and experienced situations to which minors are not usually privy.
Early success: 1955–1959
"The Wallflower" was a #1 hit on the R&B charts of 1955. The song was later a hit in the white market for Georgia Gibbs, written as "Dance with Me, Henry" and rewritten as "The Wallflower" according to her book "Etta James". The song was featured in the 1985 movie Back To The Future in one of the diner scenes. Soon after the song's success, The Peaches and Etta parted company, but this did not halt her career. She continued to record and release albums throughout much of the decade, and enjoyed more success. Her follow-up, "Good Rockin' Daddy" was released and became another hit in the fifties. Other songs however, such as "Tough Lover" and "W-O-M-A-N" failed to gain any significant success. James toured with Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Otis Redding in the fifties and has cited Watson as the most significant influence on her style.
Breakthrough and the Chess years: 1960–1978
In 1960, James signed a recording contract with Chess Records, signing with their subsidiary label, Argo Records (she later also recorded for their other subsidiary label, Cadet). James began her relationship with the label with five major hits, first with a pair of duets with singer, Harvey Fuqua; "If I Can't Have You" and "Spoonful." She had her first major solo hit with the R&B-styled tune, "All I Could Do Is Cry." The song quickly went up the Billboard R&B Chart, peaking at #2 in 1960. This was followed by the Top 5 R&B hit, "My Dearest Darling" the same year. Around the same time, James also sang background vocals on Chuck Berry's hit, "Back in the USA." That same year, James released her debut album off Chess entitled, At Last!. It featured all of James' hits between 1960 and 1961, and also included a few standards, such as Lena Horne's "Stormy Weather", "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and "A Sunday Kind of Love." The album showed James' varied choice in music.
Chess Records head producer, Leonard Chess imagined James as a classic ballad stylist who had potential to cross over onto the Pop charts. Chess began backing James up on her recording sessions with violins and other string instruments, which was first seen on her 1961 hit, "At Last." The song went to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1961, and also peaked at #47 on the Billboard Pop Chart, ultimately becoming her signature song. Although it wasn't as successful as expected on the Pop charts, it did become the most remembered version of the song. In 1961, James had another major hit with "Trust in Me," which also featured string instruments. Also in 1961, James released a second studio album, The Second Time Around, an album inspired by Soul music. The album took the same direction as her previous album, covering many Pop standards, and using strings on many of the songs. The album spawned a Top 15 hit, "The Fool That I Am" and a minor hit on the Pop chart, "Don't Cry Baby."
In 1962, James had three major hits, beginning with the Gospel-inspired, "Something's Got a Hold on Me," which peaked at #4 on the R&B chart, and also reached the Pop Top 40. Another single, "Stop the Wedding" followed and reached #6. In 1963, James cut and released her first live album, Etta James Rocks the House, which was cut in Nashville, Tennessee at the New Era Club. In 1963, James had a another Top 10 R&B hit with, "Pushover," which also made the Pop Top 25, and was ultimately one of Etta's two biggest Billboard hits on the Hot 100. "Pushover" also hit #11 on influential pop music station WMCA in New York during May, 1963. It was followed by two other singles that year that were minor hits on the Pop chart, "Pay Back" and "Two Sides (To Every Story)." That year she released her third album, Etta James Top Ten. Within the next year, James scored another Top 10 hit with "Loving You More Each Day" (which also reached #65 on the Pop chart) and had a Top 40 hit with "Baby What You Want Me to Do."
In the mid-1960s, James began to battle a heroin addiction, which would last up until 1974. For years, James would spend much time in and out of Los Angeles' Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital. However, James began recording again in 1967 and achieved her biggest hit in years, "Tell Mama," which reached the R&B Top 10 and #23 on the Hot 100. An album of the same name, produced by Rick Hall at his then-hot Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, also featured a rendition of Otis Redding's song, "Security" which peaked at #11 on the R&B chart. Although she wasn't as successful as she had been, James remained a large concert attraction. She continued to have R&B Top 40 hits up until the mid 1970s, with "Loser Weepers" (an album of the same name was released in 1971) and then with "I Found a Love" in 1972.
James released a new album in 1973 that was self-titled and spawned two minor hits. Produced by Gabriel Mekler, who had previously worked with Steppenwolf and Janis Joplin, the album musically was an ambitious mix of soul, blues, jazz and rock and it was nominated for a Grammy award the following year. Mekler produced a follow-up album called "Out On The Street Again" in 1974. Again critically acclaimed, this also produced only minor hits.
While the movie "Cadillac Records" is fairly accurate, it fails to mention one important point. While it is true the relationship that Leonard Chess had with Alan Freed, it was actually four powerful soul DJs who kept James's music on the airways: Frankie Crocker, Gary Byrd, Herb Hamlett and Eddie O'Jay. These four controlled the R&B airways from Cleveland to New York City.
Despite the death of Leonard Chess, James recorded for the label up until 1978, and began using more Rock based songs in her albums. She released her final two albums for Chess in 1978, Etta Is Betta Than Evah and Deep in the Night. That year, James also opened tour dates in the United States for The Rolling Stones and also played at the Montreaux Jazz Festival.
Later career: 1988–1999
For seven years during the 1980s James' career stalled, however by 1989 she made her comeback with an album, Seven Year Itch, released by Island Records; her first recording contract in that span of time. James found a way to bring back her older raw sound she had used on previous albums. The album was produced by keyboardist, Barry Beckett and was recorded at Alabama's famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where James had recorded previous major hits, such as "I'd Rather Go Blind." The album also helped James reunite with producer Jerry Wexler, who worked with James on her 1978 release, Deep in the Night, and also produced many of Aretha Franklin's records. James released a subsequent album in 1989 off of Island records entitled, Stickin' to My Guns, where she once again recorded at the Muscle Shoals recording studio.
The same year, James also collaborated with Delicious Vinyl rap artist Def Jef for the song and Hip Hop Dance classic "Droppin Rhymes on Drums" This record not only bridged the gap between the jazz musician and hip hop artist but also triggered the Hip Hop style of dance made popular by The Soul Brothers Dance Group during the Golden Era of Hip Hop from 1988-1994.
In 1992, James released her next album, The Right Time off of Elektra Records, where she again worked with Jerry Wexler. James then released a tribute album in 1993, Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday dedicated to one of her musical inspirations, Billie Holiday. The album was her first album for the Private Music label and also set the trend for a few albums James would release within the decade that would go in a Jazz direction. James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1993. The album earned James her first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1994. The following year, James published her autbiography co-written with David Ritz titled, A Rage to Survive. The same year, James released a Soul-inspired studio album, Time After Time also produced with Jerry Wexler. In 1998, she released her first Holiday album, Etta James Christmas, off of Private Music.
To a younger generation, Etta is known for the Muddy Waters song "I Just Wanna Make Love to You", used in television commercials for Coca-Cola and for John Smith's bitter (beer). The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry and Foghat have also recorded the song. Etta's version was a surprise Top 10 UK hit in 1996.
Modern era: from 2000
James continued to record for Private Music into the new millennium, finding her next release to be Matriarch of the Blues. It was given much praise from music articles and magazines, such as Rolling Stone Magazine, which said, "A solid return to roots, Matriarch of the Blues finds Etta James reclaiming her throne---and defying anyone to knock her off it." In 2001, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and also was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2003, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her next album the following year, Blue Gardenia was another return to a Jazz music style. That same year, she also released her third live album, Burnin' Down the House: Live at the House of Blues, which was recorded at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, California. Two years later, she released her final album for Private Music, Let's Roll, which won James another Grammy in 2005 for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked her #62 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Etta James performs at the top world jazz festivals in the world, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977, 1989, 1990 and 1993, performed nine times at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival, and the San Francisco Jazz Festival five times. She also performs often at free city outdoor summer arts festivals throughout the US.
James was portrayed by R&B singer and actress Beyoncé Knowles in the film Cadillac Records, which was released to theaters on December 5, 2008. The film is loosely based on the rise and fall of James' record label, Chess Records, and how producer Leonard Chess helped the career of James and her other counterparts at the label, although the film fails to reflect the fact that James was already a successful hit-recording artist before she joined Chess, and was not discovered by Leonard Chess as portrayed. In fact, James's songs performed worse on the charts after she joined Chess. Also, contrary to the impression created in the film, it is doubtful that James and Chess were lovers. Others portrayed in Cadillac Records include Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Willie Dixon.
At a Seattle concert on January 28, 2009, James expressed her displeasure with Knowles singing her song "At Last" at the first inaugural ball for Barack Obama, exclaiming that she "can't stand Beyoncé" and that Knowles would "get her ass whipped." James later said that her remarks about Knowles were a joke, but was hurt that she was not invited to sing her song and that she could have performed it better.
On April 7, 2009, Etta James appeared on Dancing with the Stars as a guest performer, singing her classic hit from 1961 "At Last" at age 71.
In Memphis, Tennessee on May 7, 2009, the Blues Foundation awarded Etta James the 2009 Soul/Blues Female Artist of the Year—making Etta a nine–time winner of this prestigious award.